Thursday, October 16

Early Christian Heresies and the Development of Doctrine

For many Christians today, early Christianity has been seen as a single, unified entity. However, references from early apologists such as St. Irenaeus ("the heresy hunter"), Tertullian, Origen and others demonstrate that this was not the case. Further, the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 recovered several apocryphal - largely heretical - texts, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and others. A "heresy" is a teaching that can be considered un-orthodox or opposed to what is considered "correct" teaching. Within the first few centuries of Church history, a multitude of heresies arose that forced those in the Church to develop doctrine, canon, and various other things.

One of the earliest and most well-known heresies is Gnosticism. "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Gnostics were not solely Christians, although Christian Gnosticism is a better-known branch. Within Christian Gnosticism, the material world was looked on as evil, and by gaining secret knowledge from texts or a teacher, one could leave this material world. Thus, in the infamous Gospel of Judas, Jesus is seen as representing a good god, and seeks to free others from the bondage of the evil Jewish deity. Another heresy, Docetism, picked up slightly on this, Docetics (from the Greek dokeo, "to seem") believed that Jesus was only seemingly human. Thus, around AD 200, Serapion of Antioch wrote that the Gospel of Peter should not be read aloud in church, as it seemed to support Docetic views.

Around this time, in AD 144, a man named Marcion began another heresy. In an attempt to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots, Marcion - like the Gnostic Christians - claimed that the God of the Hebrew Bible was not the god of the New Testament. Thus, in an important doctrinal event, Marcion removed the Hebrew Bible and used portions of Luke's gospel, as well as some of St. Paul's epistles. This decision would force development that is still felt today. While dealing with Gnostic and Docetic apocryphal texts, the "Great Church" began to see that Marcion's decision called into question what texts would be considered Scripture. This, in turn, led to further development of the Biblical canon, which reached its peak in the late AD 300s when the canon was finally decided upon.

While these various controversies progressed, Christians of every kind began to come under the threat of persecution. In AD 249, the Roman Emperor Decius put forth a decree that spelled trouble for Christians. Decius felt that Rome needed to return to its ancient religion, so he decreed that the gods must be sacrificed to. Within the Church, some immediately sacrificed, others forged certificates of proof, and others wavered, but returned to the faith. Those who lapsed became known as the Lapsi. During this Decian persecution, some Christians would not give up their faith but instead openly confessed it during torture. This group became known as Confessors. The Lapsi were going to these Confessors and being re-admitted into the Church - but individuals such as Cyprian of Carthage and Novation disagreed with this. When Pope Fabian died, there arose a dispute between Cornelius and Novation. In the end, Cornelius became Pope, and Novation, as Antipope (much like the earlier controversy with Hippolytus). Novation felt that the Church needed to be pure, and Pope Cornelius was too lax with the unity, the schism remained for several generations. 

In fact, the Novation controversy not only called into question the authority of bishops and confessors - but also as they felt that the baptism given by some was not valid. This idea carried over into the post-Diocletian period, when the Donatist controversy arose over those who had handed over sacred objects (traditores). As a result, the Novation schism and later Donatist schism forced the Church to refine and define its doctrines on sacraments, particularly on baptism. This is why today, largely due to the contribution of Augustine of Hippo, Catholics are not re-baptized if the original baptism was the correct form and matter. 

Around this time, three other major heresies cropped up, that of Nestorianism, Arianism and Pelagianism. The latter heresy was another that Augustine had argued against. A British monk named Pelagius disagreed with Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin, and taught that Adam simply set a bad example, but Christ set a good moral example for us to follow. Pelagius placed on emphasis on Free Will, believing that Christians could choose to sin or not to sin. This forced Augustine to refine his concept of Original Sin, so that he also began writing about the Will and the Evil Will. At the same time, however, Augustine was trying not to cross over into dualistic thinking, which his Manichean background had held. But Augustine was not the only struggling with dualism. 

In fact, controversy began centered on the dual natures of Christ. While some held that Jesus was fully human and fully divine - suggesting an image, perhaps, of wine and water mixed together in a glass - others such as a man named Nestorius held opposing news. Nestorius believed that Christ had two separate natures - suggesting an image more along the lines of water and oil in one cup, unmixed. This debate took on the form of monphysitism and dyophysitism, one that would shape theology for generations. The Nestorian view was more widely held in the East, but primary questions of the nature of Christ had been ongoing in the Church. 

The Arian controversy is another example of this question. An Egyptian priest named Arius read passages such as "the Father is greater than I," and believed that while God the Father was eternal, God the Son was not. Arius spread his views in catchy tunes, so that even boatsmen on the Nile were singing these catchy theological heresies. But the Church was not content with this. In AD 313, Emperor Constantine had made Christianity legal. Various effects came about as a result of this action, but aside from some immediate effects - Pope Miltiades was given the Lateran Palace, bishops and clergy enjoyed non-taxation - one major event occurred that had yet taken place: the first major Church council. Constantine allowed bishops the use of imperial posts, and what is now recognized as the first ecumenical council met in AD 325 near the Emperor's new Capital of Constantinople. It was the Council of Nicaea. This was authority of the bishops led to the formation of the early Nicene Creed, as they felt it better to produce a formal creed against Arianism continued, these were big steps for Christianity.

From this brief overview of early Christianity, it can be seen that much of theology arose as a reaction to or against heresy. Christological views were developed, the Biblical canon was developed and refined, sacramental views changed, and various theologies emerged. It has been said in theology that clarity comes out of confusion, or order out of chaos. As the early Christian movement grew, it took on new ideas, new concepts, and new understandings. Although Acts of the Apostles identifies the early Church as "The Way" it seems that this "Way" was - and is - in a continual ebb and flow progression, development, and discovery.

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